Interview: Daniel Rodriguez Risco Brings Back Classic Thrillers With EL VIENTRE

Peruvian filmmaker Daniel Rodríguez Risco  took an unconventional path to making movies. A former Economics student turned businessman, entrepreneur and University Dean, he worked on a second career as a budding filmmaker by making his own short fims - one per year from 1998 to 2005 - some of which won him some prestigious awards and a chance to travel to film festivals worldwide.

The shorts also caught the eye of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Suddenly, the former Dean was back in the classroom, as a 40 year-old Filmmaking student. The experience led to a radical change, with Rodríguez deciding to devote himself to writing and making movies full-time.

This led to the release of The Watercolorist in 2008, a decidedly uncommercial, personal film about an office worker turned struggling painter. It was greeted with some pretty harsh reviews by the local press, but it did make a favorable impression on a select audience, as well as some festivals in the USA and Europe.

Rodríguez's second film was a major departure: El Vientre, based on a story which the director had been working on as far back as 2000, is a psychological thriller about Mercedes, a teenage orphan working as a maid for Silvia, a lonely, deeply disturbed widow who schemes to get the girl pregnant and claim the baby as her own. It is part of a whole new crop of movies exploring genre conventions, after 2013's twin successes of comedy Asu Mare and the found footage horror Cementerio General. Rodríguez Risco speaks to Twitch about the making of the movie and current Peruvian filmmaking.

Twitch: THE WATERCOLORIST was a very personal film. How did you decide to make the switch from making that type of movie to a purely genre thriller?

Daniel Rodríguez: I found a book which changed my way of thinking: Susan Bell's The Artful Edit. I learned how important it was to distance yourself from the material, let time pass between your first draft and further revisions, as well as putting yourself in the audience's shoes and being a fierce critic of your own work.

I started looking at my material from an audience perspective, which I had never done before. I did things as a form of therapy, a need to express myself, a way to deal with my own inner demons. I suddenly discovered an audience who wanted to be entertained and satisfied. The movie went through this revision process, where the spectator became important.

I also attended two courses done by (Screenwriting lecturer) Robert McKee in Chile. One was called Scriptwriting, the other, Genres. McKee devoted an entire day to the psychological thriller. I discovered the 17 "rules" for any thriller and based on that, (Brother) Gonzalo and I revised the script, which had been idle for years, and rewrote it following these rules, with the goal of entertaining an audience.

Did you have any specific influences while making the movie, from other films or directors?

When I wrote the first draft, I was very influenced by Luis Buñuel. Two of his films had made an impression on me: Viridiana and Tristana, where Catherine Deneuve lives with a man who claims to be her father but is also her husband. She loses a leg and starts tormenting him; it was a shocking movie.

As a student, I watched Truffaut's The Story of Adele H. A woman with mental health issues is obsessed with a lieutenant stranded on an island. Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Adjani were both beautiful women damaged on the inside; I found them fascinating. Another important influence was Polanski's Repulsion, also the story of a damaged woman committing horrible crimes. Those are three examples.

What was the casting process like? How did you come to work with Vanessa Saba and Mayella Lloclla?

I had the first draft of the script ready in 2002. I held an audition and Vanessa Saba was one of the actresses trying out for the role of Silvia. I knew she was right for the part, but at the time she wasn't even 40 and the character was supposed to be older. The story was different, much bigger in scope; everything changed with time. It was supposed to occur at an orphanage run by nuns. Mercedes was an orphan, Jaime was her teacher, and Silvia her benefactor. All that was gone by the time my brother and I came up with our final version.

A lot of great actresses tried out, but I always had Vanessa in mind, and al those images of beautiful, damaged women. I had some actors in mind for Jaime and Mercedes in 2000, but they got older and unable to play the roles. We had to find other actors, different from what I had in mind. Mayella appeared, and I thought she was perfect for the part, a huge contrast to Silvia. Silvia was beautiful and mysterious, with a dark side; she's present in the shadows. Mercedes was young and fertile, a luminous presence.

I've noticed that Peruvian filmmakers lately are leaning more towards genre films. This started last year when ASU MARE became a huge smash, and then CEMENTARIO GENERAL also did really well. Why do you think our filmmakers have taken so long to start making genre films?

Making movies in Peru is difficult. It's a really small market, and the chances for distribution are scarce, or at least they were. There was almost no chance of getting a movie out. So, once a movie got made, the director wanted to cram his entire life and personal ideas into it; you only had one shot at making a film. There was also the idea, which thankfully is dying out, that making commercial movies was a bad thing; it was looked down upon a decade ago. If you made a movie, your goal was to go to big festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice or Sundance. One should do what he or she wants, if you want your movie to be artsy and personal, then go ahead; if you want to make a movie to entertain others, that's fine too. There should be a wealth of options for the viewer to choose from and that's starting to happen now.

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Released on February 15th, El Vientre is wrapping up a successful theatrical run, with approximately 215,000 viewers and some really positive reviews. It's proof once again that genre movies are slowly gaining a place in Peruvian theatres, alongside the auteur movies and social interest dramas that used to be the norm.

Meanwhile, Rodríguez Risco isn't resting on his laurels; aside from pushing the movie in international markets, where he hopes the universal themes of motherhood and obsession will appeal to foreign audiences. Finally, he's writing a book, a thriller centered on themes of guilt, and gearing up for producer duties on his son Daniel's debut as a director on an upcoming horror movie.

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